Away in a manger: the birth of confusion: The children's nativity play may be cute, but this is no way to teach religion, says Kenneth Wolfe

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IT IS the end of term, and in the nation's primary schools makeshift stages have been decked out yet again for the inevitable annual nativity play. From the deep mythological crevices in our Christian culture the biblical folklore of the infant Jesus is re-staged after a fashion, and the mutton dressed up as lamb: the story-telling will be modernised to make way for inter-religious sensibilities in a multi-faith urban community. As ever, the letters pages are not surprisingly voicing unease among non-Christian religions.

One way and another, this ubiquitous school-hall ceremony will again try - amid the smell of school dinners - to make this ancient story intelligible and get a believable message over to young minds that it all happened this way and you simply have to believe it. And that's where the damage is being done, year in and year out, every Christmas.

As mainstream Christianity seems increasingly to be committed to a trite Radio 2 Jesus, the birth mythologies are pressed into service at the end of term, with chubby faces in bath towels and a Jesus doll that always manages to clatter to the floor at the wrong moment. Never mind, everyone enjoys it - after all, it is Christmas and don't the children look splendid. Yes they do, but that is not the point.

Nobody objects to good story-telling, or all of the magical delights in the ancient Christian mythology of a baby welcomed and feared by the great and the good and lowly and unloved alike; and indeed, the reverberations of hope, peace and care in our tragic times that go with it. It is frequently a beautiful experience in a troubled world; troubled not the least by religion. The feuds persist among them all: Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Catholics and Jews. They all stem from superstitious perceptions of man-made religious ideologies that are then believed to be true, after the manner of ordinary truths.

The foundations for nonsense and the seeds of fanaticism are laid in primary schools as little ones struggle with one-liners about angels, shepherds and attendant livestock. The scandal is that there is nothing much elsewhere in the curriculum to set this in a literary context robust enough to explain that it is mythology, story-telling, a component in the evolution of early Christian belief - to explain that this is art.

Never mind that the nativity story cast a slur over family life; never mind that it was crafted to make quite plain that the genesis of the crucified hero had nothing to do with sexuality: he was virgin born and that made him all the more divine. Never mind that the idea of virgin birth was maverick from the start: it won the day and has been with us ever since. And with what consequences for women.

None of this scholarly stuff ever gets into the primary curriculum though, because primary teachers have a continuing compulsion to package the Christmas celebrations: all the paraphernalia of stars, angels, a straw-clad baby, astrologers and the trip to Egypt. The nativity-play fever in British primary education would perhaps be more acceptable were it part of an enlightened study of religion that took account of recent scholarship. Huge scientific advances have been made in the way man's imaginative sensitivities have created his religious belief systems. Jews rightly complain that most religious education gives so little credit to the Judaic mythological soil from which the Christian creed grew. Only by exposure to this wide spectrum of learning can we prevent the new generation from being led up the garden path and left to make its own way back; many as teenagers will simply consign the baggage to their fairy-tale childhood, their grasp of the part religion plays

in politics and pathology left undeveloped.

The huge advances over more than a century find little place in the religion syllabus. Religious education is afraid of the study of religion; it always has been. In other areas, it is taken for granted that teachers will be aware of what is going on higher up the academic pylon. No self-respecting educator would tolerate the flouting of scholarly endeavour in their field, whether home economics, physics or classical civilisation. But in the field of religion, we are content to have our children exposed to the superficialities of mythology dressed up as history and dramatised it as fact; especially at Christmas.

This scarring of young minds starts in primary school with nativity plays. It is a pity that youngsters have so little prospect of other creed-free measures that might help them to refine their understanding of ancient religious ideas; how man from the beginning of time has created them out of the depths of his imagination, his art and his encounter with nature. Couple this with a recent report that about 60 per cent of those responsible for teaching religion in our schools have no qualification in the subject, and the picture is shocking. Would you tolerate this in the Three Rs? You do in the Fourth R.

But for television and popular publishing, scholarly work in this field would not reach a wider audience. Two major works in the past year or so illustrate the point. A N Wilson's Jesus and Geoffrey Parrinder's Son of Joseph both investigate the historical Jesus, and the latter examines the mythologies of his birth. These two small books should be read and re- read by every primary teacher before even thinking about yet another nativity play. Both were slated by the critics largely because they threatened 'simple faith', especially among children.

In an age that has had its confidence in any sort of belief shaken to the core, we are indoctrinating young minds with a lie. We give them virtually no intellectual tools with which to distinguish fact and truth, myth and history, belief and art. We teach seven-year- olds the logic of maths and language - why not about myth and truth? Until we do we shall cultivate a vulnerable generation easily duped by half-truth and ready to suspend critical intelligence when it comes to religion. They will never quite care, let alone understand why people come to believe anything. They deserve to know why men search for the truth, how they shape it, kill and die for it; and how they should beware of those who have found it.

The writer is director of Kent University's Centre for the Study of Religion and Society.

(Photograph omitted)